By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
If one has ever felt completely immersed in an activity, then they’ve experienced flow, feeling completely absorbed in the present activity and having no awareness of time passing. Some people might experience flow while playing chess or painting or hiking. These moments often occur when one is engaged in an activity that they enjoy and in which they are relatively skilled.
The Inverted U Hypothesis
A theory examining the arousal-performance link suggests that high arousal leads to better performance, but only up to a point. This theory, known as the inverted U hypothesis.
It states that the influence of arousal on performance follows a U-shaped curve: performance is low when arousal is very low, basically the state of boredom; or very high, anxiety, and performance is highest when arousal is at a moderate level.
Sport and the Required Skill
Although there is general support for this finding about the benefits of moderate levels of arousal, there is a caveat. It is that the level of arousal that leads to peak performance also depends on the particular sport and the skills it requires.
For example, golf requires intense concentration and relatively small muscle movements, and thus, peak performance may occur at relatively low levels of arousal. In this case, even a moderate level of arousal could be bad.
Sprinting, on the other hand, requires large muscle movements and high levels of arousal. Jumping for a rebound could be helped by high levels of arousal, while shooting a free throw might need a more moderate level.
Most models tend to describe the impact of arousal and anxiety on performance as being consistent across athletes, at least within a given sport and at a given skill level. But, the Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning—or IZOF—model, posits that each athlete has their own different optimal level of arousal.
Each athlete thus, has an ‘individualized zone’ that leads to their best performance. This level then, understandably, varies and could be relatively low for some athletes, and quite high for others.
An important distinction that this model makes is that peak performance can, in theory, occur at any level of arousal. Hence, the IZOF model helps finding the distinct level of arousal for each individual athlete to achieve peak performance. This optimal zone is often described as flow, a very positive state in which a person is fully absorbed in their performance, has no sense of time passing, and achieves positive results.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The mental state of flow was first studied in depth by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Through years of research into the factors leading people who were highly successful in their professions (many of whom had received the Nobel Prize) he discovered that the secret to their optimal performance was their ability to achieve a state of flow.
They consistently reported an ability to frequently and deliberately experience flow, a state that was directly linked with high levels of creativity and productivity.
There are three features which lead to the state of flow: a balance between challenge and skill, a lack of awareness and self-consciousness, and total concentration.
Not Exclusive to Sports
Interestingly, this state is not exclusive to the domain of sports. One can experience flow when writing or teaching or whenever they are fully engaged with what they’re doing. It brings with it a feeling of it being effortless and enjoyable.
Flow is an experience of being in a state where one is oblivious to the judgment of others, or even the fear of failure, being completely engaged with what one is doing. In fact, even our sense of time may change, possibly going faster or slower.
As one might predict, people who are in a state of flow do tend to perform better. Although people who are performing well often report experiencing flow, simply being in a state of flow does not guarantee outstanding performance.
Achieving a State of Flow
So, how can people reach flow? First, we need to reach a certain level of skill and this requires practice.
When we’re just learning a new skill, we have to exert conscious, or controlled, processing, which takes considerable effort. This level of intense concentration makes it virtually impossible to achieve a state of flow.
After we’ve mastered a particular skill, we can rely on automatic processing, which requires little conscious effort. Flow can happen only following adequate practice, so that even when demands are challenging, we have the ability to meet them.
As one professional golfer described his own experience of being in flow:
There have been times where I’ve played golf at top level, in Open Championships…where you feel that you’re in control. You can see the flag, and it doesn’t matter where it is on the green…you see the shot that you want to hit, you can see the flight of the ball, and you know that you’re going to hit it exactly down that line…That’s what being in the zone is…but it’s getting to that level of confidence which is the hard bit and that…only comes through hard work and dedication.
Athletes, therefore, need to overlearn the key skills in their sport—serving a tennis ball, performing a balance beam routine, kicking a penalty shot—so that these skills become automatic.
Common Questions about the State of Flow
The state of flow is a very positive state in which a person is fully absorbed in their performance, has no sense of time passing, and achieves positive results.
The Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning, or IZOF, model, posits that each athlete has their own different optimal level of arousal. Each athlete thus, has an ‘individualized zone’ that leads to their best performance.
The mental state of flow was first studied in depth by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.